This chain of reasoning might sound strange (or flat out wrong) to a modern reader, but it’s rooted in the works of some heavy hitting thinkers. Back in the 1600’s, Descartes lays down much of the necessary groundwork for Kleist’s logic in his treaties on the mind-body dichotomy. “The body," Descartes writes,
is nothing other than a statue or machine made of earth, which God deliberately makes as similar to us as possible. Consequently, he not only gives it the external color and shape of all the parts of our bodies, but also puts in all the components necessary to make it walk, eat, breathe, and in short imitate all those of our functions that can be imagined to come from matter and depend only on the disposition of our organs.
Here, Descartes has effectively leveled the physical playing field. While bodies may come in different shapes and sizes, whether you are animate or inanimate, human or animal, all material selves are designed to competently exist without the need for free-thought. The primary functions of all creatures run like well-oiled machines, following “naturally from the disposition of organs alone, no more and no less than those of a clock or automaton follow from that of its counterweights and wheels."
When this mechanic body meets its rational mind, however, things change. The ship gets its captain. Assuming command of the entire system, the mind reigns over this previously empty vessel. The once automatic body is now subjugated, piloted to always answer to the whims of its new master. Descartes again: “When the Rational Soul is in the machine, it will have its principal seat in the brain, and there it will be like the person in charge of the fountains, who must be in the control pit (where all the pipes from the machines come together), when he wants to set them going, or stop them, or change their movements in some way…"
Unfortunately, this newfound control comes at a price. Movement spurred on by rational command somehow comes out slower than automatic instinct— not to mention how often it’s flat out wrong, a unsuccessful attempt to live out a unreasonably perfect image crafted by a mind unconstrained by physical reality. And by the way, this is all just one task we’re currently considering, and when, if ever, can you remember having the ability to truly focus all your thought into one single action? The more tasks get juggled, the further things fall from the mark. Rare is the the mind that may guide its body without complications.
Say what you will about free-will, but as pure automata we certainly were efficient. Now guided by a master that is, itself, guided by complicated self-interest, said efficiency begins to decline. Rational thought, it would seem, comes at a price, trading grace and ease for choice and self-knowledge. Or, in other words: Machine 1, Human 0.
But can we extend the score to: Bear 1, Human 0?
Descartes claims so, offering little more than the observational logic I’ve already outlined. In a letter to the Marques of Newcastle, he writes: “I know that animals do many things better than we do, but this does not surprise me. It can even be used to prove that they act naturally and mechanically, like a clock which tells the time better than our judgement does. Doubtless when the swallows come in spring, they operate like clocks. The actions of honeybees are of the same nature; so also is the discipline of cranes in flight, and of apes fighting, if it is true that they keep their discipline." He concludes the letter with an impressive lumping and jumping in logic, conclusively writing:
The most that one can say is that though the animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their body are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to those organs some thoughts such as we experience in ourselves, but of a very much less perfect kind. To which I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.
Clearly, Descartes has a strong dichotomy in mind: humans on one side, and puppets, automata, fountains, bears, birds, bees, clocks, and everything else on the other. Why an oyster and a monkey, animals who share far fewer similarities between them than monkey and man, should be so easily lumped together has never been entirely clear to me. The answer to which I find myself continually return has more to do with Descartes’ ego than anything else— as if he was unwilling to award anyone but his own species the final prize of a soul. That is to say that, while we may have lost our grace to self-awareness, so long as this self-awareness originates from our soul then its very existence proves our ethereal immortality. Bear 1, Human ∞.
That is all, of course, assuming you believe in immortality, the soul, and plenty of other things I dare not dive into now. Heinrich von Kleist, for his part, does appear to believe in the soul— or at the very least, some sort of divine absolute— but it is worth noting that he also believes we will never reach this absolute during our material lives. Thus, his thesis— Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness of an infinite consciousness— and his suggested course of action, towards the puppet. I enjoy the grounded quality of Kleist’s perspective here. He manages to uphold the idea that soul-borne self-awareness might serve us well in the long-run, while openly admitting that, in the day to day, we’re still stuck as clumsy as ever.
But perhaps there is hope for our material selves, after all. Recent research that certain qualities we’ve long held as fundamental to being human might not actually be as exclusive as we first thought. Take, for example, the fairly recent discovery that Chimpanzees, our closest link to that vexing other side of the Descartean dichotomy, can recognize themselves in a mirror.